Eriksmoen: Army officer in Dakota Territory was lauded recruiter
An Army officer who served at Forts Abraham Lincoln, Totten, Buford and Abercrombie in northern Dakota Territory rose to the rank of brigadier general and was considered one of the greatest recruiting officers in military history.
During the Civil War, Lt. James M. Bell recruited an entire cavalry company. During Reconstruction, he convinced many former Confederate soldiers to enlist with the U.S. Army. It was his responsibility to assemble a cavalry company when he first joined the 7th Cavalry under Col. George Custer.
When Custer was getting ready to go after Sitting Bull’s assemblage of Indians at the Little Big Horn, it was believed Bell’s skills could be best utilized on a recruitment drive, so he was excused from that fateful expedition.
James Montgomery Bell was born Oct. 1, 1837, in rural Blair County, located in central Pennsylvania, to William and Elizabeth (Good) Bell. The boy loved to read, focusing primarily on the campaigns of great military leaders.
Bell attended Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, and, immediately after graduation in May 1862, enlisted as a private with the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. On June 10, he was commissioned a first lieutenant and sent to combat in West Virginia.
When his one-year commitment with the Ohio infantry was over, Bell returned home and began recruiting soldiers to serve in a cavalry company he was organizing.
On June 30, 1863, after finding 102 soldiers to serve under his command, Bell’s Independent Cavalry Troop was formed as a part of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and he was promoted to captain.
After heavy Union army losses at the Battle of Gettysburg, the 13th was merged with the Army of the Potomac, and from late 1863 to early 1865, Bell’s company saw heavy action in numerous battles. Bell was cited for his action and heroism in the Second Battle of Reams Station on Aug. 25, 1864, and he was promoted to major.
During the latter months of the war, Bell led his troops in opening up communication lines for the Union generals. He was mustered out of the Army on July 14, 1865.
Following the Civil War, Bell was brought into the regular U.S. Army as a second lieutenant on Nov. 27, 1866, and assigned to the 7th Cavalry. He was sent to Fort Riley, Kan., and put in charge of recruiting soldiers for Company I. Having achieved his quota, Bell brought the new soldiers to Fort Wallace, Kan.
There was a stage line that ran from Denver to central Kansas, and Fort Wallace was located on the line, midway between the two destinations. The Sioux and Cheyenne often harassed and occasionally attacked the stage.
In the summer of 1867, incidents involving the stage and hostile Indians increased, and Bell believed it was important to accompany the stage. On June 11, during a run from Denver, the stage picked up a woman, three able-bodied soldiers and one wounded soldier. Just east of the Colorado-Kansas border, the stage was attacked by 25 warriors. Bell and the three healthy soldiers drove off the Indians, but the wounded soldier was killed.
On June 23, while acting as commanding officer at Fort Wallace, Bell and the soldiers at the fort repulsed an attack by hostile Indians.
On Nov, 1, Bell was named regimental quartermaster, in charge of providing quarters, clothing, horses, weapons, ammunition and other essentials for the troops at Fort Wallace. His duties expanded when he was named acting assistant quartermaster for the 7th Cavalry in April of 1868.
Expecting to serve under Custer, Bell was surprised when he joined the regiment at Fort Hays to find that the 7th had a new commander, Gen. Alfred Sully. In late 1867, Custer had been court-martialed and suspended from duty for a year for being absent from duty during a campaign. However, Gen. Philip Sheridan wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne and called him back to duty on Sept. 30, 1868, before his suspension had expired.
To carry out Sheridan’s plan, Custer decided to launch an attack on Chief Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyenne village, located along the Washita River in Oklahoma in what has been called the Battle of Washita or, perhaps more correctly, the Washita Massacre.
On Nov. 27, Custer’s forces attacked the peaceful village, but a number of the Cheyenne put up a valiant defense.
Many of Custer’s soldiers began to run out of bullets. To come to their aid, Bell charged his ammunition-laden wagons through Indian lines, likely saving the lives of soldiers. In 1918, a resolution was introduced in Congress to grant Bell the Medal of Honor for his action at Washita, but he died before Congress acted.
While on recruitment duty in the early 1870s, Bell had met an attractive English woman from Pittsburgh named Emily Hones, who was 13 years his junior, and they were married on March 2, 1872. The Chicago Times wrote, “She is of more than ordinary beauty. ... She is a general favorite with the officers and wives.”
One of the officers who would soon find her as a “favorite” would become Bell’s commander on three future occasions. Career-wise, this would become a “fatal attraction” for the senior officer.
The story of James M. Bell will conclude next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.